Finding the Hidden History in the Florida Keys

It seems like countless books have been written on the Florida Keys. From tourist guides to fishing histories, there’s no shortage of information on the Keys – so how do you make a book stand out? Laura Albritton and Jerry Wilkinson grappled with that question, and presented their best answer in the new Hidden History of the Florida Keys.

The Florida Keys lie scattered in a graceful arc that extends from the southeast Florida mainland all the way to the Dry Tortugas. At one time, they were remote outposts where seabirds far outnumbered human beings; untouched reefs with brightly colored corals teemed with fish, and dense mangroves lined the shores. While these islands are not especially large (with an area of only 137 square miles), their beauty and the splendor of the surrounding ocean rarely fail to make an impression on those fortunate enough to see them in person. As pioneers from the Americas and Europe began settling here, they transformed the Florida Keys, yet the Keys also transformed them. The obscurity of the location; the unpredictable, tropical weather; and the unique customs and manners that developed over time would mold the settlers into a new breed of Floridian: the Conchs.

 From the time of the earliest settlements, Florida Keys history has abounded with outsized adventures, strange events, colorful characters and, of course, natural disasters. It was inevitable that writers and historians would want to chronicle this history, and so they have, in a surprisingly rich abundance of books and articles. This wealth of publication presented the two of us as authors with a conundrum: Could we locate enough “hidden” history to warrant a new book?

Fortunately, one of us (Jerry Wilkinson) has spent decades collecting records, photographs and ephemera that document Florida Keys heritage. Although Jerry has generously shared his expertise in book form, on film, on his extensive website and during hundreds of presentations, there were still episodes he had researched, such as the Key West Extension scare, that could be included in this project. The quest to identify even more hidden history sent another one of us (Laura Albritton) to the Key West library’s magical archives to discover stories from the Prohibition era and to investigate the island’s early historic preservation movement.
In the end, our book’s scope spans 140 years, from the 1820s to the 1960s. In its ten chapters, you will encounter duelists, soldiers, politicians, pioneers, rumrunners, writers, exotic dancers, and historic preservationists. They are, without a doubt, a lively and unusual cast of historic figures. There are vast differences in their backgrounds and socioeconomic situations, not to mention their standards of morality. Nevertheless, the people who lived these stories did have qualities in common: courage, an adventurous spirit and an uncompromising individualism.

Another question emerged as we discussed subjects to cover in the book: Exactly how hidden did these “hidden histories” need to be? Should the history be utterly unheard of or just somewhat lesser known? In the end, we decided to include certain subjects that we hope will surprise even fervent Florida Keys history buffs, in addition to narratives that are less obscure. In some cases, we took subjects that had already been briefly written about (including by ourselves in previous books) and dug further to provide readers with a more detailed understanding of past events. In writing about Adderley Town, in particular, we knew that Marathon residents and Crane Museum visitors would be familiar with the basic story; however, our sense was that outside the Middle Keys, the Adderleys’ achievement deserves to be more widely recognized. Finally, in order to make the book accessible to as many readers as possible, we have given historical context and background in each chapter. Whether you have read multiple volumes on Keys history or know next to nothing about the Florida Keys, we hope that you find these ten accounts an illuminating and enjoyable read.